The Christian moral tradition is full of stories. Consider the creation myths of Genesis, the Exodus story of liberation, the stories of prophets and of patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible. Consider the stories that Jesus told his followers: of a man beaten on the side of the road, and another who takes pity on him, or of a woman in search of a lost coin. Reflect for a moment on the power of stories to shape a message. One could simply say, “God is merciful.” But to convey that meaning by telling a story about a father who shows mercy on his son by throwing a party for him when he comes home– to give a human example of what mercy looks like–this image of God shapes the moral imagination. “Ah, that’s what mercy means. Unconditional love. God welcoming home the sinner, no matter what…” In the Catholic tradition, liturgies become the place where we not only listen to the stories of our tradition but become part of the story ourselves. And we still tell stories to make sense of our vocation in this pilgrim church. Stories shape our vision. They help us stretch our imagination, enabling us to think creatively and to wrestle with ambiguity and conflict. Where would we be without stories?
In our own day, films are perhaps the primary medium for storytelling. And while many have nostalgia for a previous era when kids read more books and had less “screen time,” it is worth saying that film as an art form has real value for Christian formation, not simply for pleasure and escapist entertainment. Film provides a compelling vehicle for storytelling that can shape our perceptions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The late film critic, Roger Ebert, in the documentary about his life and death (Life Itself, 2014), said:
“For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Stories shape us because we get to try on different identities and life stories, sometimes escaping our own, for a time, but always comparing and interpreting from our own experience. A good film can elicit hope in humanity’s potential for good, can help us to understand life from the perspective of another, can teach us about other cultures. In reflecting on our own values after watching a film, we can learn about ourselves.
Now certainly Roger Ebert didn’t assume that all films generated empathy to the same degree. After all, this is the guy who wrote a book called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. So how should Christians evaluate what makes a film ‘good’? In the next few weeks, CMT contributors will reflect on and discuss a range of provocative films. At the end of this month, on February 28th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will award one of the following films as Best Picture in the 88th Academy Awards show:
- The Big Short
- Bridge of Spies
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Martian
- The Revenant
Only one, Spotlight, is explicitly about the Catholic Church. But each of these films, in its own way, creates a moral universe worth analyzing and deconstructing from the perspective of Catholic moral theology. In a new series here at CMT, we will begin posting film reviews, beginning with the Best Picture nominations listed above. While none of the contributors in this series has particular expertise in film criticism, we write as teachers trained in the field of theological ethics. And we bring that expertise to our critical reflection on these films as we raise questions about how films form the moral imaginations of viewers.
Two viewers can have very different reactions to the same film. If you’ve seen Life Itself, you know that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert often had very different reactions to the same film. The same is true, of course, in biblical hermeneutics. What we bring to the text—our own life experiences, our language and culture and social location—influences the meaning we interpret in the text. So our contributors are in no way proposing that our interpretations of these films are the only possible interpretations. Rather, we aim to engage the films from our own lived experiences and invite readers to join the discussion about the merits or deficiencies of each film.
Why do we frame our analysis under the title of “Virtue Ethics at the Movies”?
In our tradition, a virtue is described as a good habit or disposition that inclines the person toward the good. (See Aquinas, Summa, IaIIae, q. 55-67). Reflection on the virtues takes us away from a linear legalism that asks only “What is the law? Did I break it?” Instead, virtue ethics invites us to consider the kinds of persons we are becoming, and how our moral imaginations are shaped in our everyday contexts, including through the media we consume.
Does going to the movies make me a better Christian? Well, it depends.
Some stories do invite us to think about our faith and values in new ways, often in ways that surprise us. Jim McDermott, SJ, a screenwriter and the Los Angeles correspondent for America, has said in a recent post about the Star Wars series:
“Within its fanciful stories of wars in distant, long-ago galaxies I still find lessons of faith, sin and redemption.”
This is not because the Star Wars films are really about Jesus, or even Christianity. They aren’t. But they do challenge viewers to ponder goodness and evil, justice and tyranny, fate and agency.
So, in watching the films nominated for Academy Awards, we will reflect on how the films “incline the person towards the good.” These are the kinds of questions we have asked ourselves as we watched these films:
- Does the film raise important questions about the human person, justice, and/or society?
- Does the film offer role models for virtuous living—for example, protagonists who are honest, just, prudent, courageous, willing to sacrifice for a greater good?
- Does the film’s perspective challenge complacency with regard to social injustice?
- Does the film encourage empathy, self-awareness, and/or compassion?
- Does the film portray evil in a complex way, showing consequences for actions that harm self and/or others?
- If the film has a villain, is the villain glamorized so that evil becomes attractive or power over others is celebrated in itself?
Join in the conversation via our comment threads as the next few weeks unfold. And if you watch the Oscars on February 28, you’ll be able to see if the Academy voters honor the films our CMT bloggers believe best contribute to our moral development in 2016.
Pop your popcorn and get ready for a treat…